Sometimes the black letter law passed by the legislature is unclear. The legislature can’t anticipate every possible fact scenario when they pass a law, so it lay to the courts to interpret the law and give guidance to what it means. This interpretation is called case law. When the court decides a certain meeting to the law it essentially answers a legal question. Lawyers and other courts then can rely on that ruling when they have a similar issue in their case. The following case answers the question above.
Bregrant v. Fink, 724 S.W.2d 337 (Mo. Ct. App. 1987).
This case addresses the following issue:
Does the three-year statute of limitations for a wrongful death action toll when the plaintiff is a minor?
A statute of limitations is a time limit on when a claim can be filed. Id. at 337. For a wrongful death action, the claim must be filed within three years of the death. Id. Most statutes of limitations can be extended—or tolled, in legal terminology—under appropriate circumstances. Id. at 338. A common example is when the plaintiff is a minor. Id. In this case, the court was asked whether the statute of limitations for a wrongful death claim was tolled when the plaintiff bringing the suit is a minor at the time of the loved one’s death. Id. The court determined the wrongful death statute could not be tolled, and thus Plaintiff’s claim was untimely. Id. at 339.
The Plaintiff in this case was the son of the deceased. Id. at 337. The father had been admitted for an elective surgery, when he had a negative reaction to a pre-operation medication. Id. The Defendant had negligently administered the medication without properly testing for an allergic reaction. Id. Over three years after the death, Plaintiff filed suit. Id. Plaintiff had been a minor at the time of his father’s death. Id.
The court began by noting that, unlike almost every other cause of action, the statute of limitations for a wrongful death action was not contained in Chapter 516, “the general chapter on statutes of limitations.” Id. at 338. Chapter 516 has tolling provisions contained within it, including a tolling provision for plaintiffs who are minors. Id. However, this provision is limited to the statutes of limitations contained in Chapter 516; special statute of limitations, like the one for the wrongful death action, are not covered by this provision. Id.
The court noted that other states had gone both ways, some tolling wrongful death actions and some declining to toll. Id. at 338-39. However, the court was highly focused on the language of the wrongful death statute and its statute of limitations. Id. at 338. This is because Missouri’s wrongful death statute is purely a creation of the General Assembly, so the court is strictly limited to what the General Assembly has drafted. Id. Finding no room to create a tolling provision, the court agreed that Plaintiff’s claim was time-barred and properly dismissed. Id. at 339.